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Showing posts with label Ben Thomson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ben Thomson. Show all posts

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Civic Scotland, devo max and politics

Let’s start with a question - who is pushing devo max?

If you listen to the unionist parties and commentators, it’s Alex Salmond, who they claim wants it as a fall-back if Scots say NO to independence. Senior SNP figures have repeatedly said their commitment is to independence and a clear, single question on that: individual nats have varying positions on it, but a very vocal group of unknown size is totally hostile to a second question, believing it to be a trap set by unionists, who in spite of repeatedly saying they don’t want it, are somehow engaged in Machiavellian double bluff, and hope that it will win, and can then be denied to the Scots.

All of this is complicated by assertions that “nobody knows what devo max means” and the various wee and big brothers of Max, including Nae Max at All, Wee Max, Max Plus and Max Minus - this last one espoused by a party of two, Lord Forsyth and Tam Dalzell who wish to return to a pre-devolution state of powerlessness.

The official SNP position, judging by numberless media statement, interviews and responses to the endless questions is this, at least as I interpret it -

1. The SNP wants independence and a single, clear cut question, and they have offered their question.

2. The term devo max is a media term coined to explain full fiscal autonomy, i.e. a devolved Scotland remains part of the UK, and runs everything except defence and foreign policy. The UK Parliament remains sovereign, and the Scotland Act defines what the devolved Scottish Parliament may do. All or part of this can be revoked at any time by Westminster through amendments to the Scotland Act.

3. The new referendum consultation document says this -

While the Scottish Government’s preferred policy is independence, it recognises that there is considerable support across Scotland for increased responsibilities for the Scottish Parliament short of independence. One option, full devolution (or “devolution max”) was set out in some detail in the Scottish Government white paper Your Scotland, Your Voice published in 2009.

The Scottish Government has consistently made it clear in that paper Your Scotland, Your Voice white paper, Nov. 2009and its 2010 consultation paper on a draft referendum Bill that it is willing to include a question on further devolution in the referendum. That remains the Scottish Government’s position. It will listen carefully to the views and arguments put forward on this issue in response to this consultation.

That was pretty damned clear to me at the time - I gave my response to the consultation in some detail, including my concerns about the wording of the questions, the sequencing of the questions and the ballot paper(s), concerns which I elaborated on in my blog.

In summary then, the Scottish Government’s preferred policy is independence but it recognises there is considerable support across Scotland for increased powers to the Scottish Parliament, and it will consider these in a nation-wide consultation exercise, then decide of whether such an option should be offered in the referendum in addition to the independence question.

All the polls before and since have indicated that there is a very substantial percentage of the Scottish electorate who wish for such a settlement. It would be undemocratic of the Scottish Government to ignore such a body of opinion.

The degree of devolution desired - from zero to full devolution, i.e. everything except defence and foreign policy (devo max) may vary across this body of opinion. The only way to determine what this might be is the consultation process: it is clearly impracticable to put to the electorate every aspect of government, every power of government that may be devolved, except under broad headings, as for example they are defined in the Scotland Act on devolved powers and Westminster reserved powers.

All of the above should be clear enough for an intelligent 12-year old, but it is not clear enough for the combined unionist parties nor for most of the media - or alternatively, it is abundantly clear to them, but they just don’t want to believe it.


My position, for what it is worth - the view of a single Scottish voter - is that I want independence, I want a single question, but I recognise as a democrat that if a wider choice is demanded by a significant number of my fellow Scots, that choice somehow has to be enabled in the referendum.

But I warn those who want significantly more devolution under such an option that, if it won the day in a referendum, there is no guarantee that it will be delivered, in part or at all, by the Westminster government, who retain total control. The irony of devo max is that only full independence can guarantee to deliver it.


The three unionist parties, Tories, Labour and LibDems, now united in a Coalition against the independence of Scotland, are more or less as one on their view of a second question and devo max and their press supporters are also united - devo max is a Salmond-initiated ploy to snatch a kind of victory from a referendum defeat on independence. David Cameron, the Leader of the Labour and LibDem parties (he is also the Leader of the Tory Party) is against a second question and devo max.

Today’s Telegraph nonsense illustrates the official line -

By Simon Johnson, Scottish Political Editor

6:00AM GMT 31 Jan 2012

A coalition of organisations, including the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), yesterday announced a campaign to discuss changing the constitution. This was a blow to Alex Salmond, who is keen for a second question appear on the ballot paper. It has been likened to his ‘consolation prize’ in case Scots reject full independence.He is relying on civic groups to agree on the definition of a ‘more powers’ option after all three main opposition parties backed a single, straight question on independence.

Party leaders last night urged the coalition to resist any pressure from the First Minister to “manipulate the debate” and create a false consensus.

The LibDems waffle about federalism (some unionist media commentators masquerade as federalists or home rulers these days, in the hope that this will make them seem objective - and hedge their bets if independence wins!) but like most of what the LibDems say, this is meaningless.

Labour declaims that they have always been the party of Home Rule, and the ghost of Keir Hardie is summoned in evidence, but they too are against a second question and devo max.

They justify this by a tortuous process of reasoning - listen to any  of Johann Lamont’s comments - that tries to separate the concepts of independence and devolution - in other words “Let’s kill the independence nonsense by a NO vote to a single referendum question, then Labour can consider devolved matters under the Scotland Act, and will influence Westminster to grant any more powers that may be required.

This maintains the fiction that Labour and Scottish Labour - the tame puppets of the London Party - can somehow influence Westminster and the British Establishment.

Labour,  while in government for thirteen years, managed to -

widen the poverty gap, becoming more Tory than the Tories

launch two wars, one of them illegal, devastating two countries in the process and destabilising the Middle East

wreck the UK economy while enriching its Scottish politicians - those that weren’t jailed in the process

protest Labour pacifism and internationalism while wrecking the country of Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of innocents

bleed the UK armed services to death by over-extending and under-equipping them (M.O.D. incompetence) in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan

In the light of this, the Scottish people can be forgiven for dumping them unceremoniously in May 2011 and returning with a massive majority a party committed to the independence of Scotland.


And so we come to Civic Scotland, and its long-awaited launch. Well, this ship ran shakily down the slipway, birled around a few times, and now seems to be pointing exactly nowhere, with rumours that down in its bowels, officers are fighting over the compass.

One might have thought that Civic Scotland, comprised of unions, churches, think tanks, voluntary organisations, etc. would have learned something from the fiasco over the Scottish CBI’s claims - out of the mouth of Iain McMillan - that Scottish industry consensus existed that Scotland’s independence plans were damaging business confidence.

The Scottish CBI and the referendum

This should have demonstrated the dangers of a non-democratic body and its leader claiming to speak on a political matter for all of its members, but no, they’re all at it again under the rather wobbly, leaky umbrella of Civic Scotland.  One body among them can claim a kind of democracy - the STUC - but even that is deeply compromised by its affiliation to a single party, Labour, and the inadequacies of its own consultative and democratic procedures. Another body in Civic Scotland invented itself - the think-tank Reform Scotland.

Insofar as it is possible to determine any central theme from Civic Scotland, its raison d'etre seems to be something like this -

The politicians are obsessed by the process of the referendum and no real discussion or debate has taken place over policies, or what government and political parties are trying to do in Scottish society.

The manifest weakness of this position is that it is only nine months since we had a Scottish Parliamentary election, one which was preceded by an intensive campaign in which the parties produced manifestos, and spoke long and passionately about their policies in the press, in the media in general, and in a series of unprecedented television debates, not to mention by leafleting, and on the doorsteps.

This had been preceded by four years of a Scottish Parliament, televised intermittently on BBC Channel 81, highlighted weekly by FMQs from Holyrood, and intensively covered in daily television programmes, including Newsnight Scotland and various other Scottish and national media programmes and news bulletins.

To suggest that none of this was about policy, vision, and the direction and shape of Scotland, economically, socially, fiscally, etc. is the most arrant nonsense.

It’s called democratic politics - it’s the way the free world is run - more or less - but Civic Scotland, whatever it is, seems uneasy and dissatisfied with this, or at least, the leaders of its component parts are. Just how they consulted their employees, church members, trades union members etc. is unknown to me, but they clearly don’t like the process of consultation that government is currently engaged in, and feel it to be in someway inadequate, narrowing the debate.

Here are some of the thing various people in civic Scotland have said -

Rev. Ian Galloway in an interview with Isabel Fraser: “The Church of Scotland does not have a position of devolution, it doesn’t have a position on independence, it doesn’t have a position on the status quo.”

Reform Scotland - “an independent, non-party think tank that aims to set out a better way to deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility”  - in contrast, has very definite views and supports what it calls devo plus.

Martin Sime 0f the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) in an interview with Isabel Fraser:I think what we’ve heard in the last few weeks is from a whole lot of people, mostly politicians, who seem to know what the answer is, and are trying to restrict the question to get the answer that they want.”

Elected politicians (elected by us, Martin) either propose or oppose independence: how exactly are they to proceed except by campaigning for the answer they want ? That is how democracies operate.

As for restricting the question to get the answer they want, this is patently untrue of the Scottish Government, who have offered a single question,  but have made it clear that they are prepared to consider other questions, and the wider views of the Scottish body politic and the Scottish people, and have launched a major exercise to attempt to determine these views by consultation and debate.

It does appear to be true of the Westminster Government, of the anti-independence coalition of the Westminster unionist parties and of the Scottish unionist party leaders, but not of elder statesmen like Henry McLeish

Martin Sime:What this new coalition is doing is trying to open out the debate, and we’ve found very widespread support from among non-government organisations of all kinds, including business leaders, faith groups and students to try and take this debate out a bit before we get down to the brass tacks of what options there should be.

That of course is exactly what the Scottish Government’s consultation process is about, and it is why they declined to be stampeded into an immediate referendum by strident calls from the unionist parties - and the CBI in the apparently unrepresentative voice of Iain McMillan.

Isabel Fraser:Martin, is it not inevitable that if you’re looking for alternatives that have no already been proposed, that you end up with the devo max issue - and that intensely politicised already. You cannot keep this non-political, can you?”

Martin Sime:Well, we’re not campaigning for any particular option in this debate ..”

Reform Scotland are, Martin - devo plus. But carry on …

Martin Sime: .. and we’re certainly not a ginger group for devo max.

That’s clear enough.

Martin Sime: .. we’re quite resolute that the debate needs opened up, rather than closed down, so we’re opposed to the proposition that at this stage there should be a decision to simply go forward with a YES/NO question ..”

And so is the Scottish Government, Martin, even though that is their favoured position, and that is why they are opening up the debate with a wide-ranging consultation process. In contrast, the Tory/Labour/LibDem anti-Scottish independence coalition is trying to do exactly as you say and close down the debate and “.. simply go forward with a YES/NO question ..”

This was before the launch. Yesterday, we had the launch of Civic Scotland, and their core message was that other options to a single YES/NO question should be considered. Let me reiterate - that is also exactly the Scottish Government’s position - it has repeatedly said so, even though it has a preferred option of independence, and that is why a major consultation exercise has been launched.

Ben Thomson - Reform Scotland:We think the most important thing now is for Civic Scotland actually to have a voice and move away from this highly politicised debate …”

I’ve got news for you, Ben - the independence of a country is probably the most highly politicised debate a country can have - it is initiated by politics - the politics of a sovereign people - and it can only be peacfully resolved by the democratic politics of political debate and the elected representatives of the people.

Civic Scotland has no such elected representatives - but the leaders of the component organisations of this disparate coalition have a right to be heard, as informed individuals, but not as the voice of every employee, church member, union member etc. of their organisation. They have already spoken through casting their votes on May 5th 2011. The CBI and Iain McMillan have already demonstrated the dangers of such claims.

Both Sime and Thomson repeatedly claim that the debate, as reflected in the media, has been narrow and has been about process rather than purpose. I don’t believe this to be true, unless you restrict the perception to the debate to the period since Alex Salmond recently launched his consultation document.

In fact, there has been a very broad, yet very detailed debate going on for the last six years, before that since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, and before that for decades - a progressive, vital debate that led to devolution, the Scottish Parliament, the first SNP minority government, and the new SNP majority government. The people of Scotland have participated in that debate throughout, it has influenced their democratic voting patterns, and they understand very clearly what it’s all about.

But among the great and the good, the Westminster Parliament and the metropolitan media, there has been a mixture of denial of reality, and sheer blinkered ignorance. They are now waking up and trying to catch up with the people of Scotland.

Good luck to you, Civic Scotland - get in on the act belatedly - you are very welcome to offer views. Just don’t get in the way of a sovereign people and its Parliamentary democracy.

And don’t and try and shift the debate out of the political arena and into the hands of an unelected professional elite - it’s that sort of thing Scotland is trying to escape from.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Some thoughts on Reform Scotland and its online independence/devo plus poll

My normal preamble: I am a Scottish voter, an SNP member, I hold no role of any kind in the party, and I speak only for myself. I am in favour of Scotland becoming a fully independent country. I am a former Labour supporter, but was never a party member or activist. I was a member of the SDP for a few weeks in 1981. I am anti-nuclear weapons and anti-nuclear power.

I am not a psephologist or statistician either.

The Reform Scotland poll deserves some attention, but in my view, like any online poll, it cannot claim the kind of statistical validity that a poll by a polling organisation such as Ipsos MORI can claim, nor can it be seen as representative sample of the Scottish electorate. Here’s why I say that about a poll, that, if valid in this way, would give me considerable satisfaction.

Online polls by definition are completed by visitors to that online site who chose to respond to the questions, i.e it is self-selecting. It is likely that the majority already read that site regularly, and that a minority came to it by other, e.g. randomly, or by specifically being directed to the poll by other means.

For example, I did not complete the poll, for the simple reason that I did not know that Reform Scotland existed. But had I visited the site and completed the poll, it would almost certainly have been because another SNP supporter directed me to the site. (I speak from experience of other such online polls.)

Doubtless, members of other parties do the same thing, and the intensity of this kind of poll behaviour – completely valid as a PR objective but tending to be destructive of the polling purpose – will increase as the referendum approaches and online polls multiply. What I am saying is that this segment of online voting is in the main representative only of how effectively parties get their vote out, as in an election.

Now that I know about Reform Scotland, what do I now know about Reform Scotland. Here’s what it says about itself, in its invitation to me to sign-up for information – and I have, because I now want to know what this think tank is thinking …

“Reform Scotland is an independent, non-party think tank that aims to set out a better way to deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility.”

It says it’s independent, non-party. Well, think tanks always say that – as Mandy Rice Davies would say, well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Since think tanks are composed of people, it is always a good idea to look at who they say they are. With some think tanks, this would be the least reliable indicator, but I think we may be reasonably certain that Reform Scotland is comprised of exactly the people they list, and only the people they list, and that no shadowy individuals or groups are standing behind the curtain as in, say, some think tanks on global warming, i.e. the ones that think that mankind - especially that part of mankind who have become obscenely rich from despoiling the planet - has nothing whatsoever to do with global warming.

Reform Scotland receives its funding “from individuals, charitable trusts or companies which share its aims.” Since it seems to be a well-structured, transparent organisation, with a proper separation of powers (an Advisory Board and a separate Board of Management in the form of Trustees) it is doubtless possible for any member of the public to view the funding sources. Its people in many cases occupy significant positions in Scottish public life, and have not only their own reputations to protect but that of the other organisations to which they belong.

It has, in its own words, a vision, which like many such vision statements is essentially meaningless, since it would be endorsed by anyone anywhere across the globe as applied to their own country, and certainly by anyone in Scotland.

Had it said its vision was for a free, dynamic and independent Scotland, it would of course have differentiated itself radically, but would then have become an independence think tank, if not a political party (there already is one with that vision!) and would have started with an a priori assumption about the means of achieving its vision. If it excludes such a possibility, it would not be a think tank worth the name, but it hasn’t, as far as we can determine, although it favours devo plus.


The Advisory Board decides on policy and strategic objectives – the Trustees, the Management Board are responsible for day-to-day operations. Both boards have the same Chairman, not a good thing for an organisation in my view, and he is Ben Thomson, chairman of the Noble Group. The Noble Group describes itself as follows -

“Noble is an independent UK investment bank that provides a unique range of professional services to fast growth small/mid cap companies and investment vehicles. Founded in 1980, the company has over 120 employees based in Edinburgh and London.”

Ben Thomson, a former Scottish international athlete, is deeply involved in Scotland, and is very significant figure in finance and the arts in Scotland. The other twelve board members include Wendy Alexander, Jim Mather, Derek Brownlee and Jeremy Purvis, which is a fair political spread. The composition of the Advisory Board seems to me to about about as widely based as it reasonably could be, and embraces a great deal of academic and financial expertise, and Martin Sime, chief executive of SCVO (Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations)  is an important inclusion.

All things considered, I would call this a reputable think tank, one that I as a voter will treat very seriously, and had I still been in business and responsible to a company, would have advised them to treat it seriously as well. I am glad that such a think tank exists, and wish it well.

This no doubt will come as a great relief to the two exalted Boards of Reform Scotland, who have been waiting in trepidation since their inception for one old Scottish voter to discover that they existed and offer his imprimatur.

You can relax, guys and gals – you’re OK for the moment …


The poll, if it means anything at all, is encouraging for supporters of independence. Clearly, the SNP liked it and welcomed its outcome. (For the benefit of another respected nat blogger, may I reiterate that when I say the SNP, I mean the official spokespersons of the party, not the broad mass of the membership. I speak for neither, only for me.)

The full results are here Reform Scotland poll – pdf

Reform Scotland says this about its poll – “

We do not claim that this poll is totally scientific as  it was self selecting.”

I am cautious, for all the reasons given above, but if it is accepted as a reasonably representative sample of Scottish public opinion, the following figures interest me more than the headline results -

1.  If  there was a Scottish independence referendum tomorrow where you could only vote either yes or no to independence, how  would you  vote?

28% of respondents who most identified with Labour as a political party said YES to that, as did 25% of LibDems and, 9.2% of Tories – three parties opposed to independence - but only 54.5% of Greens, a party committed in Scotland to Scotland’s independence said YES.

65.2% of those identifying with Other as a party said YES. (Unsurprisingly, 97.5% of SNP supporters said YES.) Out of 809 people answering the question, 535 said YES and 425 of them were SNP identifiers, which means that 110 people who don’t identify with the SNP - i.e. 20.6% – would say YES to independence if a poll were called tomorrow.

Does this mean anything? I don’t know. The party affiliations and the no affiliation numbers don’t equate to the real voting patterns in May 2011, other than roughly in the SNP dominance – 53.9% of the 809 respondents identified with the SNP – and those who identified with no party represented 12.9%.

If Reform Scotland has the money, and really wants to keep its finger on the pulse of Scottish opinion, they should commission a real poll from Ipsos MORI at regular intervals until the referendum.

That would really make me sit up and take notice …